Die Technikmafia

Marcus Rohwetter has recently published a very detailed article about Antifeatures in the German monthly magazine Zeit Wissen. Although I’ve only read the article through automatic translation — unfortunately, I don’t read German — I’m hugely honored that Rohwetter has taken the time to engage with the idea so deeply and to help translate the argument for a much broader community than the free software community I come from and am best able to speak to.

A lot of what I’ve been trying to do in the last year or so is to figure out how to speak more effectively about the politics of technology control to audiences of non-technologists. Indeed, that’s the whole point of the antifeatures concept. I deeply appreciate the help of Rohwetter, and others, in that project.

Between the Bars

Almost a year ago, I blogged about Between the Bars — a project that offers a blogging platform to the 1% of the United States population that is currently incarcerated. The way it works is pretty simple: prisoners send letters through the postal mail. We scan them and put them up on the web. Visitors can transcribe letters or leave comments which are mailed back to the authors.

About a month ago, my collaborator Charlie DeTar and I finally finished planning and paperwork and opened the site to bloggers. Over the last few weeks, we’ve had a bunch of authors sign up. We now have a daily stream of blog posts going up on the site.

Please visit the site. Leave comments. Transcribe posts. If you know of prisoners who might like to use the site, let them know. If you want postcard fliers to send to prisoners, let us know.

On Feminism and Microcontrollers

A month or so ago, I published a paper with Leah Buechley that is mostly an analysis of how the LilyPad Arduino has been used. I read an earlier draft last year and loved it so, when the opportunity arose, I was honored to help out as the paper evolved.

LilyPad is a microcontroller platform that Leah created a few years back and that is specifically designed to be more useful than other microcontroller platforms (like normal Arduino) in the context of crafting practices like textiles or painting. Leah’s design goal with LilyPad was to create a sewable microcontroller that could be useful for making things that were qualitatively different from what most people made with microcontrollers and that, she hoped, would be of interest to women and girls.

Our paper tries to measure the breadth of LilyPad’s appeal and the degree to which it accomplished her goals. We used sales data from SparkFun (the largest retail source for both Arduino and LilyPad in the US) and a crowd-sourced dataset of high-visibility microcontroller projects. Our goal was to get a better sense of who it is that is using the two platforms and how these groups and their projects differ.

We found evidence to support the suggestion that LilyPad is disproportionally appealing to women, as compared to Arduino (we estimated that about 9% of Arduino purchasers were female while 35% of LilyPad purchasers were). We found evidence that suggests that a very large proportion of people making high-visibility projects using LilyPad are female as compared to Arduino (65% for LilyPad, versus 2% for Arduino).

Digging deeper, qualitative evidence suggests a reason. LilyPad users aren’t just different. The projects they are making are different too. Although LilyPad and Arduino are the same chips and the same code, we suggest that LilyPad’s design, and the way the platform is framed, leads to different types of projects that appeal to different types of people. For example, Arduino seems likely to find its way into an interaction design project or a fighting robot. LilyPad seems more likely to find its way into a smart and responsive textile. Very often, different types of people want to make these projects.

Leah and I believe that there’s a more general lesson to be learned about designing technologies for communities underrepresented in science, technology, engineering, and mathematics (STEM) — and for women in particular.

The dominant metaphor in the discussion on women in computer science is Margolis and Fisher’s idea of "unlocking the clubhouse." The phrase provides a good description of the path that most projects aimed at broadening participation of women in computing projects seem to take. The metaphor is based around the idea that computing culture is a boys’ club that is unfriendly to women. The solution is finding ways to make this club more accessible to those locked outside.

It should go without saying that we share Margolis and Fisher’s goal of increasing participation of women in STEM. That’s LilyPad’s point, after all. It it hopefully also clear that we’re supportive of, and involved in, projects working to remove systematic barriers to participation by women and other groups. That work must continue. But I also think that Leah’s work with LilyPad suggests another way forward based on addressing issues of self-selection that will affect even the most welcoming technological communities. Here’s what we say in our paper:

Our experience suggests a different approach, one we call Building New Clubhouses. Instead of trying to fit people into existing engineering cultures, it may be more constructive to try to spark and support new cultures, to build new clubhouses. Our experiences have led us to believe that the problem is not so much that communities are prejudiced or exclusive but that they’re limited in breadth–both intellectually and culturally. Some of the most revealing research in diversity in STEM found that women and other minorities don’t join STEM communities not because they are intimidated or unqualified but rather because they’re simply uninterested in these disciplines.

One of our current research goals is thus to question traditional disciplinary boundaries and to expand disciplines to make room for more diverse interests and passions. To show, for example, that it is possible to build complex, innovative, technological artifacts that are colorful, soft, and beautiful. We want to provide alternative pathways to the rich intellectual possibilities of computation and engineering. We hope that our research shows that disciplines can grow both technically and culturally when we re-envision and re-contextualize them. When we build new clubhouses, new, surprising, and valuable things happen. As our findings on shared LilyPad projects seem to support, a new female-dominated electrical engineering/computer science community may emerge.

I have a strong belief that computing can be an empowering tool and that expanding users’ control over technology is a critically important issue. Our paper argues that we should attempt to expand participation in computing by broadening the possibilities of computing, rather than only by broadening participation in extant, computing organizations, projects, and genres.

Even if computing and electrical engineering communities were perfectly welcoming (which they are not) most people (both male and female, but disproportionately female) will choose not to participate. Building new clubhouses requires creativity of its proponents and risks charges of reinforcing stereotypes and existing status hierarchies. But, executed carefully and well (as I believe LilyPad has been), it suggests ways to reach the majority of people that no "unlocking" project will ever seem relevant to.

Contribute to AcaWiki

In the process of studying for my PhD general examinations this year, I ended up writing summaries about 200 academic books and articles.

AcaWiki is a wiki designed to host summaries of academic articles so it seemed like a great place to host these things. Over the last few months, I’ve uploaded all these summaries. Since I’ve finished, I’ve continued to add summaries of other articles as I read them.

My summaries tend to be rough. I write them, run them through a spellchecker, and then post them. I don’t even reread them before publishing. I hope to improve them as I reread them over time. Of course, because I’ve uploaded them to wiki, I hope others will add to and improve the summaries as well.

AcaWiki uses Semantic Mediawiki and provides nice platform for publishing, editing, and collaboration. Although there are still ways in which the platform can be better, what is needed now is, quite simply, more contributors. I am sad to see that my summaries make up a big chunk of all summaries on the site.

So if you are a student, an academic, or anyone else who writes or has written summaries of articles or books or if you might want to do so, you should consider contributing your summaries, in whatever form, to AcaWiki. I’ve done a little work to help integrate AcaWiki and Zotero which might make things easier.

Doctoral students reading for qualifying or general examinations in particular should should consider taking notes and studying with AcaWiki. From the student’s perspective, writing summaries can be one of the best way to reflect on and learn a literature. In the process, one can create a great resource for the rest of the world. If a single doctoral student from each of twenty diverse fields of study published summaries of the 200 key articles in their area, AcaWiki would have the critical core of what is most relevant in academia. Help us build it!

Selectricity Source

After a semi-recent thread on debian-devel, I poked around and realized that I’d never actually gotten around to formally announcing the release of source code for Selectricity, a piece of web-based election software designed to allow for preferential decision-making and to provide "election machinery for the masses." Selectricity is useful for a range of decisions but it targets all those quick little decisions that we might want to decide preferentially but where running a vote would be overkill.

Things were delayed through a drawn out set of negotiations with the MIT Technology Licensing Office over how to release the code under a free software license of my choosing. I was swamped when things finally came through. Over time, I managed to forget that I never did a formal announcement, never setup a mailing list, and never did all those things that I have tried to teach other people in the Free Software Project Management HOWTO. Code just sort of appeared on my website under the GNU Affero General Public License. It was until the debian-devel thread that I remembered I’d never made a formal announcement. Sorry about that!

The git repository has been online and accessible through searches for more than a year now. Most folks who wanted the code seem to have been able to find it there. Indeed, a number of people have set up their own instances and a few have submitted patches to the code! But more visibility for the source means more empowered users, more visibility for free software, and more developers.

So I’ve shipped all the code into a project in Gitorious (its like GitHub, except free), announced things on the Selectricity Blog, changed the Selectricity footer of to include a prominent link to the source. I’ve also created a mailing list. The Gitorious project page includes a wiki.

I also want to mention this all here because the attention of the current development team seems mostly to have moved on to other projects. The current team seems able to keep the hosted version up and running, and even gets around to little improvements now and then, but there’s definitely room for new life and new leadership.

There are some nearly-complete and "complete minus further testing" features in the development tree that might provide low hanging fruit for folks interested in elections and decision-making who might want to get involved in Selectricity development. If you’re interested and know (or want to learn) Rails, feel free to check out the code, introduce yourself on the list or contact team@selectricity.org to coordinate.

Introducing Between the Bars

I’ve been working with Charlie DeTar and the Center for Future Civic Media on a project called Between the Bars which is a blogging platform for prisoners. The current platform is essentially a snail-mail to web gateway: prisoners send letters which semi-automatically scanned and posted to the site; comments are printed and mailed back.

As we plan the launch of the project, we are trying to talk to as many stakeholders as possible — this includes ex-prisoners, families and friends of people who are or have been in prison, non-profits working with prisoners, victims of people in prison, people who work in prisons or in corrections, probation officers, or almost anyone else with a perspective or set of experience that might help us understand the difficult space our project is trying to negotiate and who might be able to help influence the design. At the moment, we’re not talking to current prisoners due to rules regulating research involving prisoners, but almost anyone else would be someone we’d love to connect with. We’re interested in hearing from people about their experience with prisons or prisoners, about staying connected to families and friends while behind bars, and, ultimately, about how we might design, deploy, and support technology to help folks out.

If you or someone you know are stakeholders and would be willing to talk about your experience and opinions with prisons, communication, and technology, please drop us a line at betweenthebars@mit.edu.

Meta-Microblogging

So I don’t tweet because I’m not ready to hand my data and autonomy over to Twitter. Luckily — or unluckily perhaps — that hasn’t kept me off the microblogging wagon. I "dent" semi-regularly over at freedom-friendly identi.ca.

I’ve found that microblogging is a great public outlet where one can talk about all those otherwise little meaningless things that we all do in our daily lives. High on my list of meaningless little actions, however, is microblogging itself! But can you microblog about your microblogging — i.e. can you "metamicroblog" (or "metadent", or "metatweet")? I created a new account, metamako that over the last month or so, has been proving that you sure can!

Ubuntu Books

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As I am attempting to focus on writing projects that are more scholarly and academic on the one hand (i.e., work for my day job at MIT) and more geared toward communicating free software principles toward wider audiences on the other (e.g., Revealing Errors), I have little choice but to back away from technical writing.

However, this last month has seen the culmination of a bunch of work that I’ve done previously: two book projects that have been ongoing for the last couple years or more have finally hit the shelves!

The first is the fourth edition (!) of the bestselling Official Ubuntu Book. Much to my happiness, the book continues to do extremely well and continues to receive solid reviews. This edition brings the book up to date for Jaunty/9.04 and adds a few pieces here and there. Although I was less active in this update than I have been in the past, Corey Burger continued his great work and Matthew Helmke of Ubuntu Forums fame stepped up to take a leading role. As I plan to retreat into a more purely advisory role for the next edition of this book, I’m thrilled to know that the project will remain in such capable hands. I’m also thrilled that this edition of the book, like all previous editions, is released as a free cultural work under CC BY-SA

For years, I have heard people say that although they like the Official Ubuntu Book, it was a little too focused on desktops and on beginners for their tastes. The newly released Official Ubuntu Server Book is designed to address those concerns by providing an expanded guide to more "advanced" topics and is targeted at system administrators trying to get to know Ubuntu. Kyle Rankin planned and produced most of this book but I was thrilled to help poke it in places, chime in during the planning process, and to contribute a few chapters. Kyle is a knowledgeable sysadmin and has done wonderful job with the book. I only wish I could take more credit. The publisher has promised me that, at the very least, my chapters will be distributed under CC BY-SA.

Many barriers to the adoption of free software are technical and a good book can, and often does, make a big difference. I enjoy being able to help address that problem. I also truly enjoy technical writing. I find it satisfying to share something I know well with others and it is great to know that I’ve helped someone with their problems. I’ll assure I’ll be able to do things here and there, I’ll miss technical writing as I attempt "cut back."

AttachCheck Revved

I finally got around to pushing out a new version of AttachCheck — a trivial little program I wrote several years ago that tries to prevent people from having to send followup emails with subjects that include phrases like, "REALLY attached this time," by asking you for confirmation when you send an email that says you’ve attached something when it looks like you haven’t.

The release fixes a single bug that affected a few users — thanks to Iain Murray who sent the patch in and apologies to him and others for taking a while to push it out.

There’s very little to AttachCheck and, if I remember correctly, it was the very first program I wrote in Python. I’m only mentioning this revision because it’s been quite a few years since I last mentioned the program and, while the script doesn’t do much, it continues to save me a little embarrassment and effort every other week or so.

Wikimedia and GFDL 1.3

I spent more time than I would like to admit massaging the process that ultimately led to the release of the the GNU Free Documentation License 1.3 (GFDL) by the Free Software Foundation (FSF). Hours counted, it was probably one of my biggest personal projects this year.

The effect is to allow wikis under the GFDL to migrate to the Creative Commons BY-SA license or, as Wikimedia’s Erik Möller has proposed, to some sort of dual-license arrangement.

There are many reasons for this change but the most important is that the move reduces very real barriers to collaboration between wikis and free culture projects due to license compatibility. BY-SA has become the GPL of the free culture world and Wikimedia wikis were basically locked out from sharing with a larger community, and vice-versa; projects will no longer have to choose between sharing with Wikipedia and sharing with essentially everyone else. The GFDL has done a wonderful job of helping get Wikimedia projects to where they are today and Möller’s proposed switch seems, in my opinion, the best option to continue that work going forward.

The FSF gets a lot of credit (and a lot of flack) for what it does. Offering to "let go" of Wikipedia — without question the crown jewel of the free culture world — represents a real relinquishing of a type of political control and power for the FSF. Doing so was not done lightly. But giving communities the choice to increase compatibility and collaboration by switching to a fundamentally similar license was and is, in my opinion, the right thing to do.

Everyone who has worked hard to make this happen deserves the free culture movement’s thanks. This list includes Richard Stallman, Brett Smith and Peter Brown of the FSF; James Vasile and Eben Moglen of the SFLC; Erik Möller, Mike Godwin and Shunling Chen of the Wikimedia Foundation.

The FSF in general, and RMS in particular, deserves a huge amount of credit for what it has decided to not do in this case and for giving up control in a way that was responsible and accountable to its principles and to GFDL authors and in the interest of free culture movement more generally. It has not been easy or quick. If you support or appreciate work like this, please support the FSF and express this while doing so. Doing so is an important way to support these essential and almost inherently underappreciated efforts.

Punditry

On the morning after the final US presidential debate that happened a week ago, I was invited onto the excellent new WNYC morning show The Takeaway — syndicated by Public Radio International. One of the hosts, John Hockenberry, was in Boston to tape that edition of the show.

I was on to talk about Selectricity and some of other ways that we might use election technologies. I was on and off (mostly off) air for the whole second hour (7:00-8:00 AM) of taping and had a bit of a segment just into the second half of the hour. You can check out the website or download the podcast.

Although it’s definitely not as fun to listen to as my a last gig on public radio, it’s certainly more consequential. The role of the techno-pundit was also — unfortunately? — easier for me to fill.

What I’m Up To

It’s been a year or so since I last reported what I was up to in my "day job." The last year has been a productive, if sometimes schizophrenic, period.

I’ve had a good time working with Eric von Hippel (innovation and free and open source software research guru) and have decided I’d like to do a bit more of that.

So I’m taking classes again — mostly sociological methods courses — to try to learn a bit about becoming a social scientist. To do so, I’ve enrolled in the Technology, Innovation and Entrepreneurship PhD program at the MIT Sloan School of Management and am working on putting together an interdisciplinary — probably even interdepartmental — research program. My basic research questions remain the ones that have motivated all my work: How can I get a better understanding of communities producing free stuff? How can I help those communities do so more effectively?

MIT has a large number of people who share these goals and interests. Who knows, if I can put together enough of them and an academically rigorous research proposal that will provide a real benefit to the free software and free culture communities I care about, I might even manage to get a degree out of it!

I’ll also be staying on as a fellow at the MIT Center for Future Civic Media where I’ll continue to maintain and expand Selectricity, work on Revealing Errors, and more.

Free Software Project Management HOWTO

I took a little time today to make a new release of the Free Software Project Management HOWTO. Nearly eight years after I wrote it, much of the document is out of date or has been replaced with better, more comprehensive write-ups. In particular, I think Karl Fogel’s book, Producing Open Source Software says everything insightful I say in the HOWTO, a whole lot clearly — plus adds a lot I missed.

That said, my HOWTO is short and is apparently still useful to folks. I updated it to include links to a new German translation courtesy to Robert F. Schmitt, to fix a bunch of links that time broke, and to address a few obvious mistakes that readers have pointed out.

Thinking about the documents’ future, I’m happy to release it under Creative Commons BY-SA in addition to GFDL and would love to help out on a wiki book project to merge a few of related efforts into a comprehensive wiki reference work.